American Mysterymania

Presentation of the Volume

Table des matières


The Mysteries of the American City

After the groundbreaking works of Kimberly R. Gladman and Paul Erickson1, the most recent examination of the American City Mystery, its relation to the genre and its broader socio-cultural significance, has come from Stephen Knight, who stands up for its leading authors and their works as an undervalued aspect of American letters. He feels these authors have been slighted due to their status as purveyors of popular entertainment, and argues that they should rather be regarded as “central elements of the often-discussed American renaissance of creative writing in the mid-nineteenth century.”2 Knight devotes two of the six chapters of his study to what he takes to be the most important American exponents of the tradition, these being George Lippard, with his The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk Hall (1845), and Edward Zane Carroll Judson (better known as Ned Buntline), with his The Mysteries and Miseries of New York (1849). For Knight, these authors did more than simply cash in on a popular trend, and rather succeeded in adapting the mystery tradition as a way to develop novel aspects of American literature. They realized the enormous potential of the Mystery form as a way to capture and critique the sweeping changes underway in the modernizing world, and made a singular effort to adapt that model to the specific contours of the American experience, as they “reconfigured European concerns and techniques to realize an entirely American accent and viewpoint.”3 In the hands of such authors, the American City Mystery marks both a continuation and evolution of the tradition, extending the familiar decentered and multifaceted approach to the new urban world, while highlighting different aspects of it for concern or correction.

Knight’s main interest is the way in which Lippard and Judson find the Mystery form to be an ideal lens through which to examine the uniquely American experience of hyper-intense urbanization that arrived with the nineteenth century. The explosion of the urban environment was a feature common to all the great cities of the period, but it was especially intense in the American context, as cities like New York and Philadelphia grew from small towns into world cities almost overnight. And while the City Mystery once again proved an apt form to document and understand this process, in the hands of authors like Lippard and Judson it also becomes a way to understand the process within the particularly American sense of democratic self-reflection through which it unfolded in the New World. Thus, as Knight carefully explores, while the American Mysteries capture the newly teeming cities in all their chaos and complexity, like their European predecessors had done, they tend to focus on a tighter set of social ills as the root of that complexity’s transition into chaos. While offering a familiar structure and tone, the American Mystery offers a full break with the positivity that still gleams in the European Mysteries—whether in the noble idealism of Eugène Sue’s Rodolphe de Gerolstein, or the spirit of liberal reformism alive in Georges Reynolds’s London—so as to present a view of the city as even more fractured and alienated than in appeared in previous works.

Such a complete crossing into the darkness of the new urban reality allowed the American City Mystery to focus more clearly on those most effected by such new reality, particularly the way in which the new dynamics of urban life stacked the deck against the chances of those already most vulnerable, the urban poor and women. Furthermore, while the American version of the City Mystery would abandon almost any sense of hope for what it saw as the true exposure of modern life, it also met this reality with a firm belief in the American myth of rugged individualism, and thus would make the case for such intense social misfortune as arising always from instances of personal failure. Such adjustments to the original model makes the American version of the City Mystery a hybrid of a European literary tradition and the American intellectual spirit, one that is both more intense in its criticism than its European counterpart, while at the same time more bleak with regard to any potential for far-reaching solutions. It produces a vision of the new American city that is perhaps less mysterious in terms of the problems it faced, yet more mysterious than ever in terms of how it might transcend such problems, in search of the lofty democratic ideals on which it was founded.

While Knight presents the American Mysteries as united in this general perspective, his two examples offer widely divergent ways in which to pursue their goal. Lippard, the first to produce a successful and elaborate City Mystery outside Europe, adopts the model in his use of simultaneous and overlapping plot threads to capture the complexity of a vast city, but then transposes it into a mode that is both more theatrical and allegorical than previous examples. He deploys characters from all parts of the city, bringing together all the interlocking chaos and corruption that bind the metropolis together, but at the same time reduces most of the action to a central node of the urban network: the titular Monk Hall. This move takes the sweeping nature of the City Mystery and compresses it almost into a play on a single set, allowing for a sharper focus and intensity; what Knight describes as a “theater of dissent,” is “excitable, allegorical, and more denunciatory at a higher level than [more traditional] politico-economic discourse will permit.”4 Such theatricality results in a tale that increases critical insight as well as raises the dramatic stakes, so that in the nightmare view of The Quaker City the Mystery becomes a tragedy in which the increasing complexity of the city provides ever new ways for personal weakness to expose the population to ruin.

Lippard thus turns the City Mystery into a parable of individual weakness, in which he captures the American city as a dystopia where momentary failures at self-control spread through the fertile soil of the urban jungle, threatening the very future of the nation. Knight describes Judson as very much in sympathy with this sentiment, particularly the connection of personal weakness and the temptations of urban criminality, and the way in which both weigh most heavily on the working poor and women. Judson’s Mystery, however, works a different vein in terms of both its particular critique and the method in which he renders it. Where Lippard invokes a high dramatic tradition and the power of allegory, Judson transposes his City Mystery into the new mode of American muckraking journalism. Judson’s subtitle is “A Tale of Real Life” (he would go on, in the introduction, to announce his work as “a perfect daguerreotype of this great city”) and as Knight shows, his claim is an accurate one. Judson’s work is almost photographic in detail, combining masses of data on contemporary corruption and crime, with a narrative structure that carefully plots the city in its density and overlapping territories—the rich and poor may be worlds apart, but when viewed topographically they are always right atop one another and forever at cross purposes. Judson also follows this dedication into almost sociological realism in his use of dialog, and is careful to include liberal amounts of slang and criminal jargon (so much so that the original volume had to include a glossary). Unlike Lippard’s stage presentation of the city as amalgamated into the dramatic persona of a building, Judson conjures the city itself, in all its true mystery and misery. In this way, too, Knight suggests that Judson creates some distance from Lippard, as his real life sketch of the city would allow some room for hope, which the former’s morality seems to all but rule out. Judson’s New York does share a sense of complete break with the past and any of its lingering values, but still finds some opportunity for improvement within the modern urban mass. Here Knight suggests that, in images of a budding charity movement or the glimmer of racial harmony, the city shows the obverse of individual failure in the potential for “simple cooperative goodness.”5 Perhaps with enough scrutiny and exposure, the misery of mass personal failure might yet transform into the mystery of a new city on the hill.

In this juxtaposition of two great American City Mysteries, Knight argues for the form as a perfect outlet for American self-interrogation, as it finds itself at the crossroads of its continuing democratic idealism and increasing material self-awareness. The process of modernization and its models of literary reflection flow freely across the Atlantic, but its ideals and values may no longer apply. American authors must adopt and adapt these traditions for a new social context and its worldview and, as Knight suggests, the Mystery pattern provides an obvious opportunity to do so, with its attentiveness to the complex and irreducible aspects of modern life, and the room it affords for critical and insightful scrutiny of those same features. Knight’s presentation of this American effort is careful and thorough, and the essays in the volume in many ways benefit from his effort, as in turns they illustrate, elaborate, and dissent from the themes he highlights.

Poetics of Reading and Cultural Transfers (France/USA, 1840-1920)

The first section of essays in our volume takes up the theme of cultural transmission. Its essays, in particular, explore how the migration of the Mystery pattern across the Atlantic not only changed the form, but also triggered broader changes in the state of global literature and the impact it would have on its readers. Marie-Ève Thérenty’s essay begins by looking at the particular relation of New York and Paris as partners in the Mystery exchange. Like Knight, she excavates the many ways in which the New World adaptation pushed the form towards an emphasis on facticity and social commentary, but also notes an evolution in the direction of hyper-fiction and high suspense, to conclude that a century of such reworking proved as much or more influential than the original model. It is the American model that goes forth, even back to Paris itself, as the dominant model for future global crime fiction.

Filippos Katsanos also follows this path of migration, though with an eye toward how the transfer of the Mystery matrix to the New World impacts the publishing industry, especially in the elevation of what we now consider popular culture. He looks closely at the first two American editions of The Mysteries of Paris to show the extent to which these American iterations of the Mystery become a battlefield in the contest between traditional powerhouses and newer upstarts in the American publishing industry. In the end it is the capture of the Mystery novel that allows these latter elements to gain traction, and to promote their new brand of cheap and accessible books that could rival the literature of any of the previous more tightly controlled channels.

Eliza Jane Smith’s essay moves from an interest in the movement of the Mystery form itself to consider the trans-Atlantic effects of its migrating style, particularly its realist or journalistic portrayal of language. Smith here focuses on the way in which writers from Sue to Judson (Buntline) incorporate slang and argot into their works, not just for the sensational realism they provide, but also as an exercise of power. The appropriation of street speech by the higher levels of society, in the hands of both the purveyors and presumed readers of literature, works simultaneously to mystify certain marginal elements of society, as well as to contain them in a space that is at some remove from the comfortable world of the dominant social class. Such carefully rendered speech works to mark specific ethnic, racial, and social status, whereby such groups are not only identified as dangerous, but also carefully contained, at arm’s length from the artistic and material realms of the better classes of the city.

Finally, Carolyn Betensky concludes the section by looking still deeper into the relation of the Mystery and its readership, and the specific power dynamics that this relation cultivates. Betensky focuses on popular and long standing interest in the possibility that readers participated with Sue in the production of The Mysteries of Paris, so as to consider why this assumed cooperation has garnered such lasting attention. She argues that the real reason for this interest lies in the fantasy that such a sense of mass participation creates in the more upper class readership of the novel, who were after all the intended audience. Betensky suggests that such readers were the true beneficiaries of this notion of cooperation. It provided them with a chance to see their less wealthy reading counterparts, similar in so many way to the characters on the page, as buying into and even participating with the storyline, thereby confirming and validating the liberal paternalism that upper class characters (like Rodolphe) enact. As a model for many other examples of popular literature, the Mystery novel thus had a larger than recognized role in shaping our understanding of textual power in its ability to influence its readership, as it provides an apparent response to real problems in the world beyond the page.

Politics and Epistemology of the American Mysteries (1840-1850)

The second section of the volume turns from questions of transmission and reading to those of epistemology, and the political reverberations that arise from the way the American Mystery seeks to understand its new environment. Paul Erickson’s essay gets to this along the lines Knight suggests, though with even greater specificity. He sees the American City Mystery as still an effort to chart and understand the new world of the city, though suggests that in the American context this quest always come down to two specific issues that the stories seek to address: the rapidity of the city’s growth and the vast inequality of its inhabitants. Through his deft reading of many of the American Mysteries, the great as well as the less so, Erickson demonstrates that often both of these questions point to the realm of real estate speculation and its peculiar method of producing wealth, which proves to be a defining feature in the mystery of what the American city might aspire to be.

Michael Grafals shifts from the lens of political economy to the optics of gender and race, in order to examine the role played by the Mystery form in staging racial and sexual imagination as agents in the battle for the future of American democracy. Grafals’ focus is on the Mystery pattern as it arrives in New Orleans, and he asks after the way in which two Mysteries set in that city engage in cognitive mapping of the Caribbean, both enacting and resisting US imperial designs. These lesser known Mysteries—one a nearly forgotten tale by Ned Buntline, the other a German language novel by Ludwig von Reizenstein, originally serialized in a New Orleans German language paper, and republished in a modern critical edition—connect regional memory of the Haitian revolt to racial fluidity in the city. The former allows Buntline to question the nature of American masculinity, and Reizenstein to attempt a transformation of American identity through the inclusion of a queer dimension. Grafals argues that these Mysteries bring together the specter of black rebellion and the racial ambiguity of New Orleans, so as to speculate on the potentially progressive transformation of gender and sexual identities. This makes the true mystery of New Orleans one of revolutionary potential, as it looks beyond the more bounded racial hierarchies of the nation as it extends north of the Caribbean.

Sara Altschuler’s essay continues on the theme of race, and enquires into the way in which The Quaker City appears to mutate from a tale of seduction, so typical of the Mystery pattern, into a text focused squarely on the American problem of slavery. Her argument is that the permutations of the novel through various media formats—narrative, illustrative, dramatic, and narrative yet again—brought to the fore the limitation of American art with regard to addressing issues of race. In Altschuler’s view, this tortured progression inspired Lippard to rededicate the work to the task of expressing his own position against the institution of slavery. Lippard would accomplish this through the development of the character of Devil-Bug, who in the novel’s second half increasingly showcases his own complex hybridity, and thereby channels an increasingly sophisticated sense of race as a factor in American life.

Altschuler is careful to note that The Quaker City’s evolving commitment to racial justice must proceed within the more generally conservative context of Lippard’s view of the American city. This tension animates Christopher Newfield’s short reading of the novel, which, as his title plainly states, looks at the novel as a missed opportunity to imagine a better political future for the nation. In Newfield’s view, Lippard succeeds in capturing his native Philadelphia in its transition from the European model of development, with his Mystery plot no longer revolving around a bourgeois notion of charity, and instead portraying the coming together of working people in order to advocate for their own needs. At the same time, however, he argues that Lippard spectacularly fails to build upon this transition with any projection of how such coming together could lead America into the future, as he is unable even to imagine a productive way for these newly empowered masses to self-govern. While Lippard’s Mystery’s thus escapes the static political structure of the past, it sadly finds any alternative to that structure to be as mysterious as ever.

My own contribution to the volume shares Newfield’s skepticism about the revolutionary potential of the American Mystery, but attempts to argue for its pattern as still serving a crucial role in the development of American literary politics. This is as the Mystery, in both its successes and failures, provides a clear sense of the epistemological commitments that prevent the city from developing a more democratic character. The conundrum of such functional yet limiting epistemology would influence Edgar Allan Poe—a friend of Lippard and himself a tangential participant in the Mystery craze—to look for a way beyond the confines of the Mystery form, and to imagine (in a way Lippard could not) a new and different method for investigating the mysteries of modern urban life. In this way, Poe’s detective series becomes an answer to the problem the Mystery pattern exposes, as its stories describe an actor not merely solving individual problems of city life, but seeking to develop an entirely new relation to its modern urban ecology—one free of the epistemological domination that allows the powerful to organize and control the city for their own limited benefit.

Mutations and Transmediations of the Mystery Genre (Crime Fiction/Non-Fiction, Film Noir, Steampunk)  

The volume’s final section continues to meditate on the American Mystery’s revolutionary trajectory, this time with a look at the way in which the Mystery matrix proves central to the unfolding of several other important movements in American literature. Matthieu Letourneux begins this discussion where the previous section left off, looking at the connections between the Mystery form and its cousin in the detective story. Letourneux specifically argues for the Mysteries craze as playing a key role in the shift from French to American domination of the novel in general, as the shift from the European style Mystery to the American style detective story affects a change in predominance that continues into the present. Letourneux tracks this cultural shift by examining, first, the export of the Mystery to the New World via Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris, and then, a generation later, the conquest of Paris by the American detective story in the popular Nick Carter series. Such eventual displacement of the older model by the new, Letourneux suggests, occurs through equal parts thematic development and media evolution, as the detective story’s portrayal of both the modern American cosmopolitan cities, and their manifestation in serialized illustrated booklets, combined to forever transform the way crime fiction would look at the city.

Dominique Kalifa furthers the examination of Mystery evolutions as he turns attention to the life and work of Herbert Asbury, a writer little know today beyond Martin Scorsese’s successful adaptation of his 1928 novel The Gangs of New York. Kalifa asserts that Asbury’s work stands out as an important twentieth-century continuation of the Mystery pattern, as it extends the mission, so clear from its first arrival in the New World, to attack American intolerance, and reveal the entrenched hypocrisy behind the national myths of moral purity, which themselves build upon an underworld of rampant vice. As Kalifa demonstrates, Asbury’s work across the first half of the twentieth century reveals the Mystery pattern to be alive and well, continuing its work to advance American literature and politics.

David Pike’s long and seminal essay follows a similar course, as he discusses the evolution of the Mystery spirit by revisiting the mysteries as staged in film noir and then, in the latter half of the twentieth century, where it seeps into the realm of steampunk. Contemporary steampunk, Pike argues, uses the image of past as it is specifically presented in the Mystery novel, so as to conjure an imagined history from which to project a new and better future. Recent efforts, in particular, seek to break the link that allows these past worlds to mature into the bleak realms of film noir and neo-noir, and instead bend those histories toward an alternate, non-alienated future. Where Asbury follows the more critical model of the American Mystery, in his focus on all that corrupts its society, steampunk here opts for the more hopeful version, as it allows American literature to look into its own darkness in search of a brighter future.

Steampunk writer Jean-Christophe Valtat concludes this section on Mystery permutations as he examines how recent authors, such as Mark Helprin and Thomas Pynchon, return to the Mystery tradition in order to mine a feature that those works sought to downplay in their own time: their reliance on fable and fantasy as much as realism and reporting. These authors merge a new and pronounced sense of the fantastic with the classic hard-boiled realism of the Mystery pattern, in a way to make their own novels allegorical. This allows their works to take on an additional spiritual dimension, one which converts their mystery projects into a projection of a liberal theodicy, aimed at constructing a new sense of utopian justice.

In all, the eleven essays of this volume cover the entire spread and impact of this so-often overlooked genre, reinforcing Knight’s call for the American Mystery to take its place in the pantheon of the national literature. Indeed, as all the authors here demonstrate, the Mystery in its various guises regularly injects creativity and insight into American letters, as it allows new techniques and perspectives to come to the fore, in an effort to build a sustained critique of modern social developments from a specifically American perspective. From the middle of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first, the Mystery pattern appears still a profound and insightful method of American self-interrogation. It has been and remains an invaluable tool for American literature to ponder its role in capturing the national experience, ever at the crossroads of smoky urban grit and enlightened democratic vision.

(Occidental College)


ERICKSON, Paul, Welcome to Sodom. The Cultural Work of City-Mysteries Fiction in Antebellum America, thèse de doctorat, University of Texas at Austin, 2005.

GLADMAN, Kimberly R., Upper Tens and Lower Millions. City Mysteries Fiction and Class in the Mid-Nineteenth Century, thèse de doctorat, New York University, 2001.

KNIGHT, Stephen, The Mysteries of the Cities. Urban Crime Fiction in the Nineteenth Century, Jefferson (N.C), McFarland, 2012.


1  Kimberly R. Gladman, Upper Tens and Lower Millions. City Mysteries Fiction and Class in the Mid-Nineteenth Century, thèse de doctorat, New York University, 2001 ; Paul Erickson, Welcome to Sodom. The Cultural Work of City-Mysteries Fiction in Antebellum America, Doctoral Dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 2005.

2  Stephen Knight, The Mysteries of the Cities: Urban Crime Fiction in the Nineteenth Century (Jefferson North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012), p. 181.

3  Knight, Mysteries, op. cit., p. 181.

4  Knight, op. cit., p. 147.

5  Knight, op. cit., p. 181.

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